How To Check Your Ego for Better Relationships

I’ll never forget one of my greatest “aha” moments—one that came to me during a fight with my current partner. I remember the exact moment: we were driving in his truck, our typical route from his place to mine, and we were fighting.

It was probably one of those times where I demanded “take me home,” all while secretly hoping he would beg for me to stay. The fact we were in the car meant my tactic had failed. So there I was in the car, probably trying to mend things but too angry to actually see clearly and make things right.

The moment came when I asserted that he always needed to be right. This was the cause of all of our problems, I was certain of it. He turned to me and said, “Well, you always need to be good.”

I was stunned. I sat silently for a few moments as I let it sink in: he was right. I needed to be good in the same way he needed to be right. That was my “aha” moment. I realized in the same way his ego gripped the need to be right, mine held tight to the conviction that I was a good person.

What is it that was getting in the way of our love for one another? It was our damn egos. Not just his ego, as I surely wanted to believe, but both of our egos. A fight where both of our egos desperately fought to maintain their reality as “right” or as “good,” failing to accept a reality without absolutes.

There is something both freeing and unsetting about finally gaining access to a psychological blindspot. We all have them, after all, and partnership with another person can be a source of light on the parts of us we would rather not see. This moment made me realize that my ego—left unchecked—will stop at nothing in its fight to be good. Something that, unfortunately, doesn’t pair well with being in love.

The ego

Let’s back it up, though. Most of us talk about ego all of the time but I want to define it (at the risk of sounding like your high school psychology teacher). According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, the ego, in the realm of psychology, is this:

“the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.”

We do need our ego. Let’s make that clear. If we just gave in to all of our unconscious desires, with no roots in our beliefs, values, or sense of self, we wouldn’t be able to function in the world let alone find and maintain a relationship.

The thing about our ego is that it wants to be comfortable. It seeks comfort by reinforcing our idealized sense of self. My partner’s ideal self is always right, and mine is always good. When one of us threatens the illusion of the other, we quickly become each other’s enemy. Which makes sense—our egos are simply protecting us. It can’t have someone threaten the very essence of our being.

Only—that isn’t the essence of our being. I’m not always good and he is not always right. We are human, after all, and we are no better than anyone else (just don’t tell our egos that).

I’ve always found one of the hardest parts of being in love is surrendering. I have no control over how another person feels or thinks. I have no control over whether or not they will have an affair with their colleague or lose themselves in their work. They could stop loving me at any time and commitment or not, I do not have any control over this.

Building a life with another human can, at times, be rather chaotic. In the words of Terence McKenna:

“Chaos is what we’ve lost touch with. This is why it is given a bad name. It is feared by the dominant archetype of our world, which is Ego, which clenches because its existence is defined in terms of control.”

We can’t control love in the same way we can control most things in our lives. Love is just especially tricky because it involves another person and people are complicated and they also change. I can’t blame my ego for standing up to love, I guess. It is a rather bad idea to fall in love if we want to keep a tight hold on the control in our lives.

Can love transcend the ego?

I’ve found that the secret to most of my relationship struggles is to soften. If I can quietly remind myself to soften—to allow myself to be vulnerable and permeable to change—things have a way of sorting themselves out. I soften, my partner softens. I soften, and I no longer see him as the enemy, I see him as someone who is in pain and trying their best to protect themselves. I soften and I create space for love; my ego’s grip releases.

The thing is, the ego doesn’t want us to soften. It doesn’t want us to be vulnerable. When we are vulnerable, we are no longer in control and we are not protecting the imperfect and delicate parts of ourselves. That can be scary as hell. Softening sounds like it would be easy, but I have to say for myself it is a continual challenge. Sometimes, I think I’ll spend the rest of my life just softening into it.

So how can we let love win? Well, I like this idea of Shannon Adler:

“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, “What else could this mean?”

What is beneath the surface of our disagreements? Is it really about the dishwasher or the unanswered text message? There is usually something lurking beneath the surface—a story we have carried with us since childhood, a fear, a thought defined by black-and-white thinking, an insecurity—and it can call on our ego to armour up and go to war.

I love the concept of Compassionate Inquiry—a psychotherapeutic approach developed by Dr. Gabor Maté that we might be able to use to “check our ego”:

“The purpose of Compassionate Inquiry is to drill down to the core stories people tell themselves — to get them to see what story they are telling themselves unconsciously; what those beliefs are, where they came from; and guide them to the possibility of letting go of those stories, or letting go of the hold those stories have on them…”

Compassionate Inquiry may sound gentle but it’s not easy. I used to leave a relationship to avoid looking at my own beliefs and where they came from. I didn’t want to let go of my stories and I didn’t want to examine myself. So instead, I kept running. For years I thought I was running towards love but I was just avoiding myself.

I want love to win. I also know how strong my ego can be and how quickly I can become swept up in old stories and patterns. It’s liberating to see my ego as part of me but not all of me. Something about the recognition that it is my ego getting in my own way has helped me move through and make sense of even my most bitter conflicts. It has also helped me to make sense of why some of my relationships ended in the way they did.

I don’t think the secret to love is leaving your ego at the door. Come on, we all have an ego and it serves a purpose. Wouldn’t it be a bit egotistical to think we will reach enlightenment in this lifetime, anyhow? Maybe it is just a gentle awareness that we are not our egos. We are not the story, the belief, the fear, and we are not our need to be right or good. We are something far more beautiful and a recognition that we are not our ego may be all we need for love to triumph.

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